Categorical and continuous models of liability to externalizing disorders: A direct comparison in NESARC

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Context: Patterns of genetic, environmental, and phenotypic relationships among antisocial behavior and substance use disorders indicate the presence of a common externalizing liability. However, whether this liability is relatively continuous and graded, or categorical and classlike, has not been well established. Objectives: To compare the fit of categorical and continuous models of externalizing liability in a large, nationally representative sample. Design: Categorical and continuous models of externalizing liability were compared using interview data from the National Epidemiologic Survey on Alcohol and Related Conditions (NESARC). Setting: Face-to-face interviews conducted in the United States. Participants: Random sample of 43 093 noninstitutionalized adult civilians living in the United States. Main Outcome Measures: Lifetime and current (past 12 months) diagnoses of antisocial personality disorder, nicotine dependence, alcohol dependence, marijuana dependence, cocaine dependence, and other substance dependence. Results: In the entire sample, as well as for males and females separately, using either lifetime or current diagnoses, the best-fitting model of externalizing liability was a continuous normal model. Moreover, therewasa general trend toward latent trait models fitting better than latent class models, indicating that externalizing liability was continuous and graded, rather than categorical and class-like. Conclusions: Liability to externalizing spectrum disorders is graded and continuous normal in distribution. Research regarding etiology, assessment, and treatment of externalizing disorders should target externalizing liability over a range of severity. Current diagnoses represent extremes of this continuous liability distribution, indicating that conditions currently classified as subthreshold are likely to provide important information regarding liability to externalizing phenomena.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1352-1359
Number of pages8
JournalArchives of General Psychiatry
Issue number12
StatePublished - Dec 2005


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